Laws passed in the early 19th century in Louisiana banning any acts of sex outside of vaginal intercourse became to be known as the “Crime Against Nature.” In the Bible belt state of Louisiana, any other sex was simply an abomination.
New Orleans, Louisiana is a carnival of colors and sounds. A Mississippi port city awash in southern roots, colorful French-Creole charms and overtones of piety – very catholic, very Baptist and even very VooDoo. It’s a city that lives according to code.
"New Orleans gets stuck in this – kind of like – Puritan mentality that's completely antithetical to everything that's happening," said local resident Rosana Cruz, who is the associate director of an offenders’ rights group known as Voice of the ex-Offender (VOTE).
"People come here and have conventions because they know there's the French Quarter. They know there's strip clubs, prostitution," said Stephen Singer.
On Bourbon Street, for about $200 bucks, you can buy yourself sex. More specifically, you can buy straight-up intercourse with a New Orleans street walker.
Anything else – anal sex or oral sex – can be negotiated.
But, ‘anything else’ is technically against the law under statues known and crimes against nature.
"It basically prohibits anything other than ordinary intercourse as far as sexual relations go," explained Singer.
If anyone would know, he would. Singer is a former city prosecutor who now teaches at the Loyola School of Law. He explained the is still in place, but there isn’t anyone from the New Orleans police department who actually goes around knocking on the doors in the city neighborhoods checking to see if husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends are engaged in such acts beyond intercourse.
Make no mistake however, the law remains heavily enforced. Who is the target? Prostitutes.
"All you have to do is have an undercover officer driving around in plain clothes in an unmarked car,” Singer explained. “And all they have to do is drive around and drive up to people that they believe are prostitutes or are known prostitutes and just ask how much."
"And if she answers,” added Cruz, “she's just opened a huge hole in her life."
A huge hole because a crime against nature is punishable by as much as twenty years in prison and incredibly large fines and being forced to register as a sex offender.
"You're talking about a woman who's in her early twenties who has to register as a sex offender for the next 15 years," said Cruz.
For a city that focuses often on the pleasures of the flesh, why is there a need to criminalize acts of sex routinely engaged in – and why target only prostitutes?
"In almost all of these cases, they end up in a plea to probation and fines – fines and fees,” singer said. “And the important part about the fines and fees is that's all revenue coming in to pay for the court system, to pay the police, to pay for jail, to pay for prosecutors' offices."
Simply put, an antiquated 19th century law passed on the guise of Christian values is being used today primarily to make money.
"It's a 5-year felony. You can use that to encourage people to plead guilty very quickly. It justifies higher bonds," he added.
The hookers often opt to plead guilty to the lesser charge of prostitution to avoid a felony. The lesser charge, a misdemeanor, does however carry higher fines and fees. With such high costs how do the prostitutes pay off the debts?
"They're paying for it by engaging in more prostitution,” singer remarked. “They get caught again. And they have to engage in more prostitution. It's a vicious cycle.They’re the proverbial hamster on the wheel."
"This is an old law. It's a stupid law. It's a law that a lot of people even within the criminal justice system don't agree with,” said Cruz.
Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans community organizer, editor of Left Turn Magazine and the author of “Floodlines” explained the police use this law to target those who are black or gay; they assume blacks and gays are more likely to be practicing prostitution and crimes against nature.
Racial and ethnic profiling, and targeting of gays and transgender people is far too common, he explained.
A recent US Justice Department report found this to be true and specifically cited the crimes against nature issue in Louisiana.
“There has been some legislative efforts [the change the law].” explained Flaherty. But, “there is very small hope of anything positive coming through this legislature in terms of criminal justice.”
He explained that the state’s legislature is Republican controlled and does not want to appear as soft on crime.